I never considered the idea that a smile could be a sign of weakness, particularly a polite, welcoming smile, until I welcomed a man named Charlie Ronald to our office team with a smile. I saw it in his examination of my smile, as I examined him examining me. It was a memorable introduction. He had a cringe on his face that suggested I was not one to take seriously, because I was a smiler. That cringe informed me that a smile is a bad first impression if the person I was smiling at is a potential rival.
Charlie Ronald would give me many tips on how to compete in corporate America, in the months that followed, and he would prove to be an encyclopedia of such tips. He never said anything about my initial smile, but it was obvious that he considered that a violation of everything he learned about how to make a great first impression. His reaction to my smile also informed me that I should prepare for all future interactions I would have with Charlie Ronald.
I received two types of tips from Charlie Ronald. The first type involved those he actually said, but those were obvious, boilerplate tips that anyone that has worked in an office for any amount of time picks up. “Don’t discuss politics and religion in the office,” was an example of the tips he offered that I considered so obvious that I forgot them soon after he said them. The other tips were those I can only assume that Charlie Ronald discovered by reading the various pieces of “How-to” literature. The smile I used to greet him with must have been an egregious violation of what he read. If I confronted him about it, I can only guess that he would cede that there’s nothing wrong with a kind, welcoming smile, but that I should be careful not to include friendly elements in that smile with a potential rival in corporate America. Those elements might lead the recipient to consider the smiler simple-minded and nonthreatening.
Much to Charlie Ronald’s chagrin, I would not follow his tips. I would continue to smile at him, and he would shake his head in dismay. His tips did teach me one thing. They taught me to pay careful attention to the tips one offers another, for they are window into the soul of the person offering them.
The tips that were far more instructive than the tips Charlie Ronald said were those I gleaned watching him, when he didn’t know I was watching. The central theme of these tips involved how a bad guy can walk and talk with his peers, virtually undetected. The first tip I picked up was convince those around you that you are a nice guy. Being a nice guy, in Charlie Ronald’s world, was a state of mind. In order to convince others that you’re a nice guy, you have to believe it. A nice guy does not walk around with a snarl on his face. He walks around with an ever-present “you’re wrong about me” on his face before anyone knows enough about him to be wrong. A nice guy does not twist his mustache, tie a lady to a railroad track and laugh in a maniacal manner. He has a warm, ingratiating, and –some would say– attractive smile on his face. It’s perfectly fine to smile, of course, as long as you believe it. A nice guy does not kick kittens, and that they try to be humble. A nice guy, to Charlie Ronald’s mind, is everything his audience wants him to be. He is a soulless, character deprived blank slate waiting to learn the characteristics those around him desire.
A nice guy also seeks the approval of others. This might be tip number two or at least one A, for most people enjoy it when a person seeks their approval. It disarms them. They’re not accustomed to people putting forth such effort. These two points could lead any person ringing a warning bell to sound like a jealous, street corner screaming conspiracy-minded lunatic.
Another problem I have had with my peers, in relation to Charlie Ronald, was that I have this obsessive belief that I can read people, and that I’m often wrong. I’ve often ignored my initial readings for that very reason. I tried to temper my spidey senses when it came to Charlie Ronald, but he kept doing things that caused my antennae to flare up.
Charlie Ronald was my first encounter with a real life Hollywood depiction of the corporate type. He was a good looking, deceptive, phony, egotistical, self-serving, mean, and a sleek dresser. He dressed like those preppy kids we all hated in high school, but we all dressed like that … in the 80’s. Charlie Ronald was a throwback in every sense of the word. He was a Gordon Gecko type that believed that one did everything you could to get ahead. Many of us enjoyed that Gordon Gecko “Greed is good” speech for what it was, and for what the screenwriters Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone intended, but few of us took it as seriously as Charlie Ronald apparently did.
Prior to the Charlie Ronald’s hiring, my manager asked me to draw up a perfect senior agent to assist me in my senior agent duties.
“Two words,” I said. “Technical proficiency. If the person you hire is technically proficient, I can handle the rest. I can train this person on the rest, and I can take the rest of the world on my shoulders while they learn it.” My manager later assured me that we found our man, and his name was Charlie Ronald.
When they promoted him to work with me, I thought he was going to assist me in answering the technical support questions our team’s agents had. I thought he was going to be an unassuming fella that wanted to know the ropes of our office team culture. I wasn’t going to bother him with the dynamics of our relationship, where I was the more tenured member, but I thought he might fill in those blanks. No big deal, I thought when he didn’t. I didn’t need him to feed my ego in that manner.
I’d love to tell the reader that I was onto him from the very beginning. I’d love to tell the reader that I was perceptive, and observant, and I saw it all. I didn’t. He didn’t charm me in the way he did those that hired him, but I considered him pleasant. Even after the odd introduction, with his perceptible analysis of my pleasant smile, I wanted to give Charlie Ronald a chance. I didn’t want to burden our relationship with my powers of observation. I was a smiler.
After that initial smile, Charlie Ronald and I exchanged pleasantries. I asked him if he was a sports fan. He said he was, but after a few exchanges, he said he merely enjoyed watching sports. He confessed that he did know as much about sports as I did. That was enough for me. He asked me if I was a Star Wars fan. I said I was, but after a few exchanges on the subject, I confessed that I didn’t know as much as he did.
“I’m sure they told you that I’m Mr. universal,” I said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “I know everything about this company save for the tech support questions. We will be sending those questions your way.” My manager informed me that she told Charlie Ronald why he was hired, and what his role on the team would be, and I was repeating her, almost, word for word. She told me that Charlie Ronald had technological knowledge, and that he was in college studying to get a degree in computer technology.
“Don’t,” Charlie said.
When someone just says don’t, the listener requires clarification. He didn’t clarify anything initially. He simply laid that word out and allowed it to gain mass. He wasn’t smiling when he said it, and that non-smile turned into a cringe. He then smiled, but his smile was not one that we smilers use. His smile was a distraction, a way to avoid making eye contact. He tried to smile more to foster a more believable smile that we smilers understand, and we tried to move onto other conversation topics. He tried to be an interesting conversationalist without being overbearing. He tried to distract from the slight cringe, and the follow up smile, but I couldn’t turn the page with him. I thought I saw him, and when I think I see someone for who they truly are, I am not able to turn it off, and I cannot look away as quickly as I should. I want to see more. I want to see the totality of what I think I’m seeing. This has provided me numerous uncomfortable moments similar to this one.
I eventually snapped out of it, and I considered the idea I might have I hurt his feelings. I tried to convince him, and myself, that I wasn’t constantly, and obsessively, reading people. I did everything I could to return us back to the present tense, in which both of us were smiling at one another, but I could see that he was as distant as I was. I felt guilty for entering his brain, and he saw that guilt. He saw the effort I put into that smile, and he perceived it as weakness.
“I’m not an IT guy,” he confessed. I saw the initial cringe on his face when he said, “Don’t”, and I thought I saw a lie on his face, but I considered the idea that he was an eager young student that was seeking to learn. I expected him to say something that would clarify these two short characterizations of his ability, but when he didn’t, I filled the blanks in for him. I told him that the “hands on” knowledge he would gain in the coming months would supplement whatever theoretical knowledge he attained in college. I told him that I considered his role an enviable one. “I’m not getting a degree in computer technology either.” That one nearly dropped me. ‘He lied about everything,’ I asked myself. I could picture myself sprucing up my knowledge in an interview, but he was telling me that everything he told my manager in the interview was a lie? ‘Why was he telling me this?’ I wondered while looking at him.
I considered the idea that he guessed that he could reveal the lie to my supervisor, and all of the Human Resources people interviewing him, but a lie to me would have consequences. If he didn’t confess the truth to me at that point, he would pay the consequences down the line, when I passed the tech-related questions to him. I also began to wonder if Charlie Ronald was being clever. I figured that I might have been reading too much into it, and/or giving this man too much credit, but I wondered if he was telling me about the lie to shift the guilt of the lie to me. It led me to wonder which party carries more guilt, the person that lies, or the person to whom they confess the lie. The answer seems obvious, unless the person on the other end of the lie has previously suffered the consequences of being a rat.
“There is a price to pay for indiscretions,” my sixth grade teacher, a Sister Mary Lawrence, said to me. She caught me in a lie, but it was a group lie, and no one else broke the code. “The reward for being an honest person will come to you in the end,” she added. Sister Mary Lawrence was one of the more confrontational people I’ve ever met. She wasn’t the type that attempted to persuade the truth out of person. Her tactics involved brute force that wormed its way into a person’s soul. She convinced me that my integrity was on the line. She informed me that I had been dishonest with her on numerous occasions, and I had. She informed me that once one heads down the course I was on, it becomes more and more difficult to correct the course. She said that if I wanted to change course, this was my opportunity. Her tactics were such that I think former lawyers-turned presidents John Adams and Abraham Lincoln would’ve been taking notes. She convinced me that I no longer wanted to be a dishonest person, and she broke me. I gave it all up. I gave up the names of everyone involved. It cost me friendships. They declared me a rat, and I lost all of my stature in the sixth grade world.
Other than the price to pay for indiscretions, Sister Mary Lawrence’s confrontational presentation included the rewards for honesty. She was so persuasive that I’ve spent a lifetime waiting for both, and I’ve been a patient man. The rewards and price to pay are all theoretical of course, but I have found that one has to dig deep into a person’s epistemology, and their long-term interactions with their fellow man to find any. I have also found that those that engage in indiscretions are often the first to find the fruits of short-term rewards.
The Price Paid
They say that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat people that can do nothing for them. If that’s the sole barometer one uses to judge a man, Charlie Ronald was a poor excuse for a man. Charlie Ronald didn’t particularly care for most people, and most people didn’t particularly care for him. He treated those beneath him in the office, as if they were beneath him, and he treated all of those above him in our corporate hierarchy, as if they were superior creatures. He would use this methodology to rise, in meteoric fashion, in our company, but it all began with a lie.
I don’t know how many lies Charlie Ronald told in his eventual, meteoric rise to the upper levels of the hierarchy in our company, but I was there for the first one. I saw his momentary cringe, and I saw the smile that followed. I saw that he didn’t care for revealing dishonesty, but it didn’t bother him so much, that he would correct it in the future.
Criminologists state that we can learn a lot about a serial criminal, be they bank robbers or serial killers, by their first crime. As with serial criminals, serial liars attempt to adjust their method of operation to throw detectives off the trail, so the first one defines them better than any that follow. If there was a core to Charlie Ronald, I witnessed it that day at his desk. I would also witness the characteristics that others assigned to Charlie Ronald, and I knew I could define him by that first lie. I know what I saw, and I know what I know. I know he follows what all those ‘80’s movies told us about corporate America. If he read the profile I’m writing here, he might try to refute some of it, and he might try to qualify other revelations, but my guess is that he would smile and point at the scoreboard. ‘Whose formula worked?’ is something he might ask triumphantly.
“My last supervisor was a real piece of work,” a co-worker once told me, years later. She went on to describe a supervisor that had no interest in her individual success in the company, and no interest in her in general. “It’s not difficult to fake interest in a one-on-one session behind closed doors,” she would continue. “I don’t care if a supervisor cares about me. I really don’t. I just want them to give me my numbers, go through the usual tips regarding how I can improve myself, and let me go back to work. Most supervisors know enough to know how to feign concern, but they do so to encourage their workers to work better in a manner that reflects better on their team’s numbers. I had a supervisor that was so ill equipped to do this, that it was almost laughable. He cared so little about me, and my life, that he ended up feeding into the stereotype of how we think that supervisors truly don’t care.
“I cared so little about a supervisor’s empathy or sympathy,” she continued. “That it was almost a relief to have one that would forego the clichés about caring. He gave me my numbers, he asked me if I had any questions, and he would let me go about my work. I was so unconcerned with it that I didn’t notice it, until he expressed some sympathy for me one day. He conducted this particular one-on-one at my desk, as opposed to the usual closed-door sessions. This was a common practice on his team, as he appeared to deplore the whole production surrounding one on ones as much as I did. I thought so little of it that I barely looked away from my computer screen while he spoke.
“He complimented me on a specific case that I worked, and he brought up some of the details of the case. I was a little shocked by his sudden attention to detail, and I thanked him for noticing. Then, he asked me about my kid. He even mentioned my kid’s name. I was shocked. He commented that he couldn’t imagine how hard it was for me, as a single mother, to raise a boy. He asked me about my boy, and he asked how my boy was doing. His concern seemed so genuine. I was touched. I was so shocked that I asked him if he knew something about my boy that I didn’t. I asked him if he heard something. He said he hadn’t. He had a warm smile on his face when he said that. A warm, genuine smile. I thought I was seeing another side of him. I was so shocked that I could barely speak. I looked around in a sarcastic manner, as if to ask what’s going on here, and that’s when I noticed that his boss, our manager, was sitting in a neighboring desk, watching us. The manager was sitting so close to us that I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed him before, but if I looked away from my computer during a one on one, it was to glance at the supervisor speaking. Once I noticed our manager, my supervisor’s concern made sense.” Her rant was so long, and so filled with detail that I nearly forgot to ask to whom was she referring. “His name was Charlie Ronald,” she said when I finally did ask.
As much as I grew to loathe this man, as the weeks and months passed, our respective positions put us in close quarters a number of times. I didn’t want to talk to the man, but I didn’t want to be rude either, so I tried to think of non-work related topics to discuss. I fell back on sports. I knew he didn’t know much, so I pared the conversations back to the casual consumer level. I only went a couple of conversations in one day, before I realized the man was even less interested in the topic than he previously confessed. On the face of it, I wouldn’t have cared about that either, but the idea that he professed a degree of interest in something he had no interest in, added to the profile I was building on Charlie Ronald. As a polite conversationalist, I turned the topic back to one that suited Charlie Ronald better. I talked about Star Wars. Charlie Ronald cut me off quickly, stating that he sold his Star Wars collection. His tone suggested that Charlie Ronald wasn’t just tired of talking about sports or Star Wars. He didn’t want to talk to me. He appeared to loathe me. I don’t know if it was a defense mechanism, but I wanted to say, ‘I loathe you more!’ That may have devolved into a competitive contest over who loathed whom more and I didn’t think that would’ve been productive.
Our relationship pivoted from that point forward. I no longer tried to engage him in conversation beyond that which was necessary. The other employees were not as affected by Charlie Ronald’s detachment. They attempted to befriend him. It took them a little longer to realize that if you couldn’t do anything for Charlie Ronald he had no real interest in you.
Perhaps it was his natural good looks, or his charm, but the agents on our team strove for his approval. It might also have something to do with the nature of humans to seek the approval from one that won’t give it, but the employees wanted Charlie Ronald to think they were good employees and good people, and the fact that he wouldn’t give them that gave him great influence on our team. The employees were often depressed about it. They knew I liked them, and they knew that I thought they were good people and good employees. This was a given. They took my approval for granted, but Charlie Ronald’s approval was something to achieve, and he destroyed our team with it.
Tip number three, from Charlie Ronald’s encyclopedia of tips: The best way to control the perceptions a team of people have of you is to demoralize them. Employees complained to me about his demeanor. They said he was short with them, and that he started little fights among them. I told them not to go to him as often. I told them I would handle their problems. Human nature being what it is they couldn’t stop going to him. I think it was equivalent to a stern father. They loathe him, but that loathing gestates into respect and admiration, until they find themselves vying for his approval. I experienced manipulative people before, but I never encountered an influence as negative as Charlie Ronald’s influence.
Our upper management staff was comprised of homely, overweight women. Charlie Ronald devoted whatever positive energy he had on them. He showed that he could be congenial, likeable, and gracious when the product of his affections could advance his career. It was so obvious with Charlie Ronald that I think if I cornered him and called him a kiss ass, he might have said, “Well, yeah!”
Charlie showed me how to kiss ass. I’ve witnessed another kiss ass before, of course, but Charlie had it down. He crystallized the idea, for me, that kissing ass is a function performed by two highly insecure individuals to produce a mutually beneficial outcome. The overweight, homely women liked being in charge, and they liked being told they were in charge, regardless the true import of the communique.
It defined their leadership a little when Charlie Ronald buttered their bottoms with cute, harmless, and professional flirting. Watching him conduct all of the individual relationships he developed with the management staff was like watching a maestro conduct an orchestra. He not only made it look easy, he made the casual observer think they wasted a lot of time and effort trying to prove themselves worthy. Charlie Ronald discovered the age-old loophole to meretricious advancement, but as loopholes go, they required the other players to be facilitators.
Those with integrity, and a nun’s enforced sense of guilt, would probably never be able to be that phony, no matter how beautiful it was to watch. It was also quite painful to watch. I don’t think I would’ve been able to sleep at night after saying some of the things Charlie Ronald said to them. He had no problem with it. He had a master plan, and he knew he could accomplish it without consequences. He knew that these women were professional women that would not risk their stature by cashing in on Charlie Ronald’s subtle flirting, and on the off chance that they did, I’m sure he would have been as quick Wyatt Earp was with a gun with a “Let’s keep it professional” comment to avoid further confusion.
The upper management’s giggles to Charlie Ronald statements were like nails on a chalkboard to me. I couldn’t believe they didn’t see it for what it was, but they probably could, and they probably liked it.
Charlie lunched with them, and he spoke to them more than I did in management meetings. Much of what Charlie said was gibberish, but it was earnest gibberish. It was his wish “to better understand what management expected of him.” He was a bad guy.
At one point in our tenure together, our supervisor divided our duties into job A and job B. Job A involved working with the customer service agents’ questions. Job B involved working special projects. To my detriment, I enjoyed this division of labor. It played to our individual strengths. Allowing this to go forward, in the manner it did, turned out to be my huge, and I mean HUGE mistake. My belief was that my relationship with the team of CS agents would redown to my benefit over the long haul. The huge mistake I made was my failure to see the long game Charlie Ronald was playing by attaching his name to all of the special projects assigned to our team. I was beloved, among the team of CS agents, for helping them achieve high quality review scores, and for insisting that they learn the material as they went. I was tireless in my effort to achieve the perception of being a vital employee in the company, a cog that went about his job honestly and perhaps quietly. My philosophy was that the person that does their job in search of accolades will find none, but the person that works their tail off, seeks to improve his ability on a daily basis, and takes care of all of the little things will find accolades and rewards coming their way. That was naive thinking on my part, and I realized this after a time, but I don’t have any qualms about my mindset at the time for that’s how matters should have played out. I played the game the best way I could have, but I must acknowledge that could haves and should haves only have a prominent role in childish games. It was ultimately demoralizing to see, firsthand, how wrong, and I mean WRONG, my mindset was. Charlie Ronald, the newer of the two of us, learned how the system worked, and he played it like a Stradivarius.
After completing my study of Charlie Ronald, I realized that most of the impressions I formed were right on the mark. He was a man that gave bad vibes, but as I said so many of my readings of bad vibes resulted in bad readings. With Charlie Ronald, at least, my initial reading proved prescient. Who cares was something I decided. Who cares if you don’t personally like the guy, that he’s in direct competition with you, and his inter-personal skills are some of the worst I’ve ever witnessed. I still have a job to do. My job is to do it to the best of my abilities, and let the accolades fall where they may.
A short time after coming to this conclusion, Charlie Ronald reached out, for the first time, to stab me in the back. I was conducting a meeting. I wasn’t great at conducting meetings and Charlie Ronald knew it, so we decided that I would conduct this particular meeting by myself. This particular meeting was going great, however, as I grew comfortable with the information before me, and I was interacting with the CS agents well, and I was in a mode of confidence I’m rarely in when speaking before other people. I was “on” in other words, and Charlie Ronald knew it.
“Your time is almost up,” he said soon after our supervisor entered our meeting. He hadn’t said a word the entire meeting, until the supervisor walked in. If that wasn’t enough, he asked me a question that the two of us had discussed two days prior, a question neither of us knew the answer to. That question had nothing to do with the presentation. He was right, however, in saying that my time was ending, and I had yet to focus on some of the latter points in the PowerPoint presentation that required attention. I was focusing too much attention on the other points. The fact that he was right does take some points away from my argument, but the fact that he saved this observation until the point that he could interrupt me in front of our supervisor diminishes any points he may have had. This insight only occurred later, of course, after the nature of Charlie Ronald’s actions became obvious to me. I didn’t consider the idea that Charlie was trying to disrupt my flow in front of the supervisor. I thought he was posing questions, and giving helpful reminders. I had no idea he was trying to disrupt my fluidity to prevent our supervisor from seeing me deliver a quality presentation. The idea that he could interrupt my easy, smooth flow speaks of my public speaking skills, of course, but it should also speak volumes about Charlie Ronald’s insecurity and his deceptive manner in general.
Some of the people I warned, eventually figured Charlie Ronald out, but it took them so long that by the time they did, it was too late. He was so good at these little games that he became, for me, a prototype for how I would do it, if I wanted to be a Charlie Ronald. He defined for me how a bad guy could operate in a culture without consequences. He was so successful, in fact, that it took me years to find a possible consequence for being a Charlie Ronald, but I can speculate that a Charlie Ronald will always find one. In our shared, narrow world, he made more money than I did, and he advanced within our company more than I did. Are sacrifices required to those that manipulate others? If we changed the playing field, would Charlie Ronald adapt and be just as successful in other areas of life? Was there a reality beyond what was perceptible to me at the time? It wasn’t until I wondered if Charlie Ronald was such a bad guy “off the field” that I found a needle in the haystack.
Was this Gordon Gecko role he played at work, so complete that he could shut it off at the close of our shift? Was he able to play a Ward Cleaver role at home, unencumbered by the character he played at work? It seemed to me that that would be a difficult switch to turn off, but if this actor were a soulless, character deprived blank slate waiting to learn the characteristics those around him want, why wouldn’t he be able to become everything his wife and child want him to be?
Some say that this search for definition, as it pertains to good guy versus bad guy, is a simplistic venture. If Charlie Ronald were available for comment, I’m sure he would offer one of his many tips. “A complete human being doesn’t take their work home with them,” is something he might say. He might also drop a line like, “Everybody has someone that loves them.” If we were to judge Charlie Ronald in broad parameters, we would have to ask him how he acts around the fellas. From what I could see, Charlie Ronald didn’t associate well with peers or underlings, but that was at work where he would employ Gordon Gecko tactics. Would he be able to employ such tactics on his son, or would he be so successful in his ability to “not take it home with him” that he would be able to turn it all off and play with his child? My guess is that when his son comes of age, and he reflects on Charlie Ronald as a dad, he will describe Charlie Ronald as a father figure that tended to his tax deduction’s superficial needs. Everyone has a boss, and my guess is that if Charlie Ronald respected his in-laws, he lived in fear of what they might think of him if his kid was not well fed, dressed in clothes they considered inferior, or if the kid isn’t making the grade in school. My guess is that when the in-laws are around, Charlie Ronald was the dad that his son always wanted him to be. My guess is that he played with his child in a manner equivalent to a politician playing with his children in a campaign ad. My guess is that the son won’t see this in his younger years, and that the things Charlie Ronald did with him surprised the kid, until the in-laws left. My guess is that these characteristics played out in all of Charlie Ronald’s relationships, that he knew how to play the various roles a good man plays in life, and that he is an encyclopedia of tips on how to be a better father, husband, and brother. My guess is that in the course of playing those roles, Charlie Ronald is as calculating and manipulative as he was in the office. My guess is that a person cannot be as duplicitous as Charlie Ronald is without it affecting his home life in some way. My guess is that those that know Charlie Ronald far better than I knew him know who Charlie Ronald is, and always will be. My guess is that Charlie Ronald can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and his people have learned that all they can do is laugh about it. My guess is that this is the only price Charlie Ronald pays for being Charlie Ronald will play out in that part of his eulogy that none of his loved ones has the heart to read.